More than Big Mal

MIKE Summerbee once told me that Malcolm Allison was the greatest coach this country has ever seen. Gary Owen, another former Manchester City hero, once told me he was baffled by Allison’s techniques. Different portraits, same man. Allison never was easy to pin down.

The extraordinary thing about Allison, who has died aged 83, is that you could tell his story a dozen different ways and any version could claim to be the truth. And that’s because he was a far from straightforward personality.

Harry Pearson, reviewing David Tossell’s excellent biography of the former City and Crystal Palace manager, describes Big Mal’s cigars-hats-and-dolly-birds persona as just that, a creation, a “boorish Seventies Mr Hyde to Malcolm Allison’s cerebral Dr Jekyll”.

Pearson and Tossell both argue that Big Mal the caricature gradually overpowered Allison the coaching genius. And perhaps that would explain why the tone of the numerous Allison obituaries varies so wildly. It would also explain why Summerbee and Owen give such differing accounts of their experiences working under him at Manchester City.

I spoke to Summerbee about Allison two years ago, for an article to mark the 40th anniversary of City’s last league title win. Allison was ostensibly Joe Mercer’s assistant at Maine Road in 1968. In reality, Mercer was the figurehead, Allison was the brains – “the key to the door,” as Summerbee put it.

It was Allison’s innovative coaching methods, honed during his time as a centre-half at West Ham in the 1950s, that made the difference, according to Summerbee.

It wasn’t just the training, either – he worked on his players’ diets to ensure that what they ate helped them perform at their best. Basic stuff now, but not in the mid-1960s. In addition, Allison was a great tactician and a brilliant motivator.

“Joe was the figurehead, and in Malcolm we had the greatest coach this country has ever had,” Summerbee told me.

“Forget Wenger or Mourinho; Malcolm was so far ahead of his time it was untrue. He was doing things in 1965 that clubs are still doing today.

“When I arrived at City from Swindon, he changed my life. He gave me so much confidence.”

City won the First Division, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in three seasons under the Mercer-Allison partnership. City being City, the good times didn’t last.

Allison wanted the top job at Maine Road. A group of fans who wanted to takeover the club promised him he could have it. The takeover went through, Mercer was sidelined, then went to Coventry. Allison didn’t last long as City manager.

Chairman Peter Swales brought Allison back to Maine Road in January 1979, initially as Tony Book’s first-team coach, then as manager. Joe Corrigan, in his 2008 autobiography, described it as “one of the worst decisions in the club’s history”.

Allison was still looking to innovate as a coach, but now his ideas were alienating players, as I discovered when I interviewed Owen for a magazine article last year.

Owen was one of a clutch of established players at Maine Road sold by Allison in the summer of 1979 as he dismantled one team and attempted to build another. Before he and Peter Barnes left for West Brom, Owen got a glimpse of the Allison way.

“If you speak to Mike Summerbee or Colin Bell or Francis Lee, they will always tell you just how far ahead of his time Malcolm was, that he had ideas that revolutionised coaching,” Owen said in that interview.

“But times had changed when he came back to City. I’ll always remember the bemusement on the faces of the City players when he brought in a dancing coach, and told Mick Channon and Asa Hartford to dance together. I can still see the players walking out.”

Corrigan tells a tale of Allison bring in a psychologist to talk to the players with no explanation, then walking out of the room and leaving him to it. Bemused, the squad listened to the psycholgist “talking nonsense” (Corrigan’s words). Channon quickly made his excuses and left. The rest of the team soon followed.

“Even though I didn’t see the best of him, there’s no doubt that Malcolm had a lot of ability as a coach,” Owen said to me last year. “He wouldn’t have had such a long career in football if he hadn’t been any good.”

There are so many other stories about Allison – the wine, the women, the song and the soccer – that will be recounted with fondness, and maybe the odd hint of exasperation, over the coming days.

Like the tales told by Summerbee and Owen, they may contradict each other. But then Allison was a contradictory character. That was what made him so fascinating.

Pearson wrote in his review of Tossell’s biography: “I once met Malcolm Allison in a pub in County Durham. The thing that struck me about Big Mal was that he was really quite small.”

But as Pearson noted, ‘bigness’ in football is about more than just physical stature.

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